Thursday, November 02, 2006

Buy my lifestyle in hardcover

I'm sure every publishing, booky blogger is linking to this article in the NY Times today - but ya just got to. The piece, by Julie Bosman, was kind of ragged on, in today's Publisher's Lunch:
The specious passing off of a long-term business development as a recent "trend." The attempt to build a causal link to "statistics" that don't mean anything anyway. The age-old pejoratives (why are publishers always "pushing their books" and "peddling"?) And what high school English wouldn't go to town with a clause like this by itself: "even chi-chi clothing boutiques where high-end literary titles are used to amplify the elegant lifestyle they are attempting to project."

Fair enough.

Working for a small publisher, I have seen books come back to life or survive based on finding a niche market through a non-book store, so I appreciate the concept Bosman's discussing. At the same time, we return to the term "consumer-oriented" publishing:
The Time Warner Book Group routinely changes the color or design of book jackets at a store’s request so the book will color-coordinate with merchandise. And HarperCollins plans to design books for its spring catalog in shades of “margarita and sangria,” greens and reds that store owners have told the publisher will dominate that season’s color palette, said Andrea Rosen, vice president for special markets.

Now that is foul. C'mon. It reminded me of an article I once read in the Boston Globe, I believe, about how strongly Wal-mart controlled industries which produced goods it sold. The example was Wal-mart dictating to Gillette how to make, develop and price their products, since they held such a large share of Gillette's market.

It's hard for many of us to understand that Americans on the whole do not walk into bookstores. I don't get this. I understand that some rural areas don't have bookstores - which the article addresses, and which is a fair point ("At Penguin Group, sales representatives have begun pushing into rural areas that are short on big bookstores, selling at cattle auctions, among other places."), but it seems many Americans do not go in when they have them. Booksellers are constantly trying to come up with ways to get people to COME IN - events, signings, off-beat performances. But they often don't, and so we have books kind of dripping into these other markets.

I don't mind on the whole. The point about the rural areas is smart, and I've definitely published books (as an editor) that could benefit from this kind of niche distribution. I'm one of those geeks - and fortunately am dating someone of similar geekiness - who loves bookstores, and goes to visit good independents when I'm on vacation (thank you, San Francisco!). But is the market separating, breaking apart, and will bookstores be robbed of their product?

They're going to have to change, that much many of us can agree on. Places like Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge are just phenomenal bookstores that make people come in and buy, with fantastic front tables, smart staff picks, active readings and signings of all sizes, and nicely presented top sellers. But they also have a ridiculously ideal location, in the middle of an area that has one of the top universities in the world, with many rich students, and a city full of smart, active readers.

I'd love to open a bookstore, truth be told, and I've often wondered how I'd make it work. I've worked for the chains, b&n and borders, and I've seen the value and shortcomings in the way they each sell books. I think an indy store has to be very in tune with the local population, and has to have SMART folks working there (a major problem with the chains - for every smart employee, there's a complete idiot making you spell "Kafka").

So if specialty books are getting sold in Banana Republic or Restoration Hardware, I don't think that hurts a good bookstore and it gets more people reading. I support independent businesses first and foremost, but I'm not ready to get into hysterics about the phenomenon discussed in this NY Times piece... I don't think.


Anonymous said...

Hi, just a quick post to say that I'm enjoying your intelligent blog -- though I do think you worry too much about the future of editors and the future of books. You should make an email address available. I'm the author of one of the articles you've linked to in the past month and it'd be nice to drop you a note.

Boston BookEd said...

Thanks for the comment! I think I worry too much in general, so this is a valid point indeed. You or any reader can reach me at - sorry, thought I had that somewhere, but guess I don't have it listed after all. I'll look into that.

Lee said...

Thanks for the email address. I also appreciate it.